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How Worried Should We Be About The Hawks' Rebounding?

No team is great at everything. The Hawks' primary weakness is rebounding. Will that issue be fatal in May or June?

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Pat Riley is noted for a variety of things: first man in North America to win championships as a player, a coach, and an executive; coiner of the term "Threepeat"; owner of the quintessential 1980s hairdo; and source of the quote "no rebounds, no rings," which his employees still recite. For those of us who became NBA fans when Riley was winning regular titles with Magic and Kareem's Lakers, Riley's nuggets of wisdom seem like they come from Mt. Sinai.

The Hawks are having the best season in franchise history, but they are not a great rebounding team. Atlanta ranks 29th on offensive rebound rate and 22nd in defensive rebound rate. The team constructed by Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer is exceptional at shooting (third in effective field goal percentage), passing (second in assists), and creating turnovers (fifth in opponents' turnover rate); rebounding is less of a priority because it's virtually impossible for a team to be great at everything.

So can a team win the NBA title without being an above-average rebounding team? Let's take a look at the rebound rates for

Team Offensive Rebound Rate Defensive Rebound Rate
'14 Spurs 24 4
'13 Heat 27 24
'12 Heat 18 10
'11 Mavericks 26 8
'10 Lakers 7 9
'09 Lakers 3 17
'08 Celtics 17 8
'07 Spurs 27 3
'06 Heat 17 1
'05 Spurs 12 3
'04 Pistons 9 12
'03 Spurs 17 13
'02 Lakers 16 6
'01 Lakers 3 10
'00 Lakers 5 4
'99 Spurs 16 18
'98 Bulls 2 7
'97 Bulls 2 12
'96 Bulls 1 7
'95 Rockets* 26 19
'94 Rockets 27 5
'93 Bulls 1 11
'92 Bulls 5 4
'91 Bulls 4 9
'90 Pistons 5 4
'89 Pistons** 7 4
'88 Lakers*** 12 8
'87 Lakers 10 13
'86 Celtics 16 1
'85 Lakers 9 12
'84 Celtics 7 2
'83 Sixers 1 10
'82 Lakers 3 15

* - Last year of the NBA being a 27-team league

** - Last year of the NBA being a 25-team league

*** - Last year of the NBA being a 23-team league

The short answer is that NBA champions are generally above-average in rebounding, but there are examples of champions with the Hawks' rebounding stats.  The Hawks rebounding profile is not that different from the '13 Heat, the team that caused Spoelstra to repeat Riley's line about the importance of rebounding.  The '95 Rockets are another example that gives us some optimism.  It's difficult to win a title despite being a below-average rebounding team, but it's not impossible. The guy on the next bar stool who claims that the Hawks can't win a title with their mediocre rebounding is wrong.

It's also important to differentiate between offensive and defensive rebounding. The last four NBA champions have all been below-average in offensive rebounding, so the fact that the Hawks don't hit the offensive glass hard is not a big concern. It stands to reason in a league in which the best-run teams are emphasizing shooting and spacing would be one in which champions aren't great at offensive rebounding. Defensive rebounding, other the other hand, is a big deal. Only two of the last 15 NBA champions have been below-average on the defensive glass.

This distinction is especially apparent when we look at the Spurs teams upon which these Hawks are based. The five Spurs teams that won NBA titles all had double-digit rankings in offensive rebounding. The first two Spurs teams to win championships had double-digit rankings in defensive rebounding, but the last three have been ranked third, third, and fourth. In short, if Al Horford wants to emulate Tim Duncan, then he needs to kill it on the defensive glass in May and June. Alternatively, the Hawks are going to have to force enough turnovers on defense to make up before their rebounding deficiencies.

And in case we are already thinking about a potential playoff matchup with Cleveland, the Cavs are eighth in offensive rebound rate and 18th in defensive rebound rate. They are better than the Hawks, but not elite in that department. Friday night marked the first time in four meetings this season in which the Hawks beat the Cavs in rebound rate. Of the Four Factors, the most important in the meetings between the Hawks and Cavs has been effective field goal percentage, as the winning team has come out ahead in that category all four times. If you want another little slice of optimism about the Hawks' rebounding rate, the Warriors, Bulls, Raptors, Rockets, and Mavericks join the Hawks and Cavs as teams that are below average in defensive rebounding rate.

A few random thoughts on the rebounding numbers:

  • It's quite possible for a team to be both excellent on rebounding their own misses and weak rebounding their opponents' misses, and vice versa. Often, when we say that a team is a great rebounding team, we mean one, but not both.
  • Phil Jackson has eleven titles and every one of his championship teams were in the top ten in at least one of the rebounding stats. Seven of eleven were in the top ten in both. He ought to be the one who came up with the quote.
  • Riley's four Lakers teams that won titles were not especially great at rebounding. Only the '82 Lakers were elite in either stat.
  • You can picture Shaq's diminishing motivation being a factor in the Lakers' 2002 offensive rebounding as compared to their success in that stat in the previous two seasons.
  • You can see the effect of Dennis Rodman on the chart. The Worm won five titles and all five teams were in the top seven in offensive rebound rate. And the Bulls were even elite in that department when Horace Grant was the power forward instead of Rodman. Imagine the fun of defending against Michael Jordan while knowing that even if MJ misses, your opponent is great at getting the rebound.